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Stranger at Home The Praise Poet in Apartheid South Africa PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 02 December 2011 00:00

Written by Ashlee Neser (Wits University Press)

Review by Mbongeni Malaba

Ashlee Neser’s book is a thoughtful, ground-breaking analysis of the considerable poetic oeuvre of David Livingstone Phakamile Yali-Manisi, covering forty one years, from 1954 - 1995.  It explores, painstakingly, the trials and tribulations faced by the author, as he tried to fulfil his role as an imbongi during a period in which the poetic form he mastered, praise poetry, struggled to maintain its cultural significance in a context which was inimical to the values it ‘traditionally’ held.


Manisi deeply valued Xhosa poetry and was, as his Christian names suggests, a devout believer, who nonetheless cherished the history and culture of his community, which he endeavoured to record. Neser’s impressive study foregrounds the tensions and contradictions that pervade Manisi’s work, as he struggled to balance his strong attachment to rural Xhosa values and his role as Chief Kaiser Mathanzima’s praise poet, on the one hand and being an office bearer in the ANC on the other hand. He had an enormous respect for education, and studied a Lovedale from which he was expelled for “having participated in an aggressive praising contest with a boy from a rival clan.” He was forced to leave Mathanzima Secondary School in order to support his family when his father became ill. He valued education as a means of attaining recognition and liberation, but was acutely aware of the sub-standard nature of Bantu Education, after its introduction in 1953. He was a committed Christian, but at times railed against missionaries for supporting colonialism. He lamented his limited educational attainments, yet was also proud of his association with Jeff Opland who, through his research, has done so much to raise the profile of traditional Xhosa poetry. His long association with Opland led to his appointment as the Traditional Artist in Residence at Rhodes University; and through this connection, he spent four months in America as a visiting performer at prestigious institutions, including Vassar College, Harvard, and Columbia. The text provides fascinating insights into the man and the medium.

The study places Manisi’s work within the context of Xhosa praise poetry, as well as that of South African praise poetry; the broader context of African praise poetry and oral literature in general. It points out the complex nature of the genre:


Although complexity is a definitive feature of accomplished izibongo, the praise poet, who is mandated to restore equilibrium where imbalance exists, is expected to command the contradictions he highlights. These contradictions should illuminate rather than further obscure, and their resolution, which may take several forms such as exhortation or censure, should be comprehensible to the audience.

Furthermore, “the poet depends on his staple subjects – identity, community, land and ancestry – while they in turn depend for their unity and animation upon his poetry’s binding vocative force.”  As a traditionalist, Manisi took seriously, his role as an advisor to his Chief, but in the context of South African politics during the apartheid era, seemed unable to influence Kaiser Mathanzima is meaningful ways, as Neser notes, with reference to his 1972 poem:


The dominant propensity of the poem, whether critical or positive or ambivalent, is to open around its subjects adjacent pathways of possibility that they can choose at any time. A poem always expresses what its subject is and has been but, more importantly, it asserts what that subject might and ought to become.


Manisi’s perceived close relationship with Mathanzima undermined his credibility with urbanised Xhosa people, who rejected the apartheid vision of “homelands” being their natural home and, instead, saw themselves as South Africans, even though they were, as blacks, denied citizenship. The flexibility of praise poetry enabled urban practitioners to celebrate trade unions instead of the compromised rural chiefs, who were seen as working hand-in-glove with Pretoria:


Praise poets intervene in public life under the authority of the conventions attached to their art. It is convention that authorises the rural imbongi to mediate between an established ruler and his public, and to name each party to the social contract in ways that assert their mutual duty. Under the same conventions that govern the rural imbongi’s role as mediator and official name-giver, industrial praise poets of the 1980s personified the trade unions as duty-bound representatives of their worker-publics. Although the established literary tradition of izibongo is identified primarily with the chiefdom, trade union praise poetry illustrates the form’s capacity for powerful address and efficacy in the secular politics of urban environments.


Manisi failed to sufficiently distance himself from Mathanzima and his pacifist stance made it difficult for him to embrace revolutionary change, despite his constant, scathing attacks on colonial duplicity, brutality and land alienation.


Given the legacy of segregation, he found it difficult to communicate with white audiences, during his period as an employee at Rhodes University. The lack of shared cultural values was a constant source of frustration.  The problem was accentuated during his spell abroad. Furthermore, whilst in the United States, he was wary of being spied upon, by the South African government’s agents, so he avoided ‘political’ topics such as the entrenched racism in the States, which could have provided appropriate material for comparing the two nations.


Neser’s study foregrounds Manisi’s failure to balance the competing strands of his personal and political views and offers a sad testament to a gifted man whose poetic works ultimately failed to connect with his intended audiences, both oral and literate.  The book’s structure is likely to challenge the general reader, as it constantly shifts from poem to poem, and back again, but it has an underlying logic. The story is an eloquent indictment of the legacy of apartheid in the cultural as well as political domain.